1984, written by George Orwell in 1949, remains to this day one of the paramount examples of dystopian fiction. Whether in the tropes and images found within its pages, or the very real threat it presents of a dark future, it resonates even decades later. The story of Winston Smith, Big Brother, and Ingsoc has featured on many lists of the greatest books ever written, chosen by editors, authors, and readers alike as one of the best pieces of fiction ever created.
Big Brother is watching you
When it comes to evaluating dystopian fiction, one issue I always raise is the idea that the information age acts as a very effective stopper on the ability of a totalitarian regime to come to power. It is very hard to keep people ignorant and make movements in secret when information travels so freely through the internet. 1984 however, is the one world that is likely being helped along rather than hindered by the spread of technology.
We have a GPS in our car, and in our phone. We agree to terms of service and end user license agreements without ever reading them. We have CCTV appearing on every intersection to monitor traffic. Most of us have technology with the ability to actually track our movements and gather information about us we barely understand.
The true danger from Big Brother that is usually not shown in other instances of dystopian fiction is the constant and progressive revision of history. To make it so that what is true now will have always been true, for every instance of “now” you might consider. This is where our reliance on technology is hurting us. We’ve offloaded most of our memory of the past onto Wikipedia and our e-readers and iPhones. The takeover could be much more subtle in this kind of system that we usually see from coups and military dictatorships.
An enduring example
As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, 1984 is one of the most enduring books of all time. Many phrases and images have long since entered the common parlance. Even the author’s name itself has given rise to “Orwellian” as an adjective, to mean totalitarian especially with elements of constant surveillance and monitoring.
While 1984 isn’t the founder of the genre of dystopian fiction, it is absolutely among the most widely read and well liked. It is a testament to Orwell’s treatment of the concept that his book is still on the reading lists of many high schools. At once stark and accessible, it paints a very dark future while keeping Winston Smith the protagonist every bit the Everyman he was designed to be. You can identify with him throughout the entire story, and the strength of that really makes the climax of the book hit home. While the casual hedonism of Brave New World loses impact as our own society becomes more liberal and the suppression of thought in Fahrenheit 451 fades as our reliance on the physical printed word wanes, the dark vision of doublethink and doublespeak and the Ministry of Love still looms.
Why should you read this book?
It is pretty hard to argue with a book that was on Time Magazine’s Top 100 books of all time, voted 16th by editors and 6th by readers on The Modern Library Top 100 Best Novels, and 8th on the BBC’s Big Read survey. 1984 is a classic of fiction, and one of the originators of dystopian fiction in the modern age. Chances are, if you grew up to be a science fiction and fantasy reader, you’ve already read this. But if the last time you read 1984 was in high school, you should absolutely give it another look. It gains a lot being re-read with a little more life experience and maturity.